Saturday, April 22, 2006

"We have been extremely liberal of our grants of eminent domain authority in this state."

Senate to clarify eminent domain

April 22, 2006

By Eric Finley, Ballot Box
The San Angelo Standard-Times
Copyright 2006

AUSTIN - Texas property owners worried about eminent domain should know this - not even the state knows how many entities have been granted land-taking power by the Texas Legislature.

The State Affairs Committee in the Texas Senate, chaired by Sen. Robert Duncan, is studying eminent domain policies in the state. By the end of the year, the committee will recommend what the state should do about it beyond the legislation enacted in 2005 that limits the taking of land for economic development.

Duncan, R-Lubbock, said the State Affairs Committee asked the Legislative Council for the number of entities the state has granted eminent domain authority. It was more than the council could count, Duncan said.

''To me, that's an indication that we have been extremely liberal of our grants of eminent domain authority in this state,'' Duncan said this week following a State Affairs meeting on the topic.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing cities to use their power of eminent domain to take land for economic development in 2005 led Texas lawmakers to restrict that power.

Besides determining which state, regional or local entities have eminent domain power, the State Affairs committee is charged with monitoring the implementation of the legislation passed in 2005 and make any recommendations as to the use of eminent domain for economic development.

The committee is to recommend what constitutes adequate compensation for property taken. It also is asked to recommend whether a constitutional amendment is needed.

Duncan says he's not sure whether he would support an amendment, because he typically prefers not to change the state's constitution, nor does he like taking control out of the hands of lawmakers.

He said amendments could help clarify that the entities must prove that land taken is for the public good. An amendment also could help limit the way legislators hand out eminent domain authority, instead of simply granting the power to entities that request it.

''That's basically what we've been doing over the years,'' Duncan said. ''That's wrong, and we need to correct it.''

Copyright ©2006 - The San Angelo Standard-Times, an E.W. Scripps newspaper


"This is the new paradigm. This is the way of building roads in Texas.”

Wavering support: Commissioners split on support of CDA option to toll 121

April 22, 2006

McKinney Courier-Gazette
Copyright 2006

The Collin County Commissioners' Court on Friday entertained a motion to agree to back the comprehensive development agreement process for tolling S.H. 121 and “mend fences” with the Texas Department of Transportation, but was deadlocked with a split vote-two commissioners voted for backing a CDA, and two voted against it.

Pct. 3 Commissioner Joe Jaynes, who represents McKinney, made a motion to back allowing a private company to build and manage the state highway through Collin County, and Commissioner Jerry Hoagland seconded the motion. However, commissioners Phyllis Cole and Jack Hatchell voted to stick behind the county's almost certainly doomed choice to support the North Texas Tollway Authority's bid for the right to build the toll road.

“I know we need to mend some fences, but we also need to stand by what our cities are telling us,” Hatchell said. “We know McKinney is just ‘let's go for it,' and we know what Frisco has done, so let's find out what Plano and Allen want.”

The City of Frisco had drafted a resolution which supported tolling S.H. 121 if the toll rate was kept at 12 cents per mile and if NTTA would be allowed to build and operate the road, and the other four cities and Collin County later adopted the same resolution. But with recent actions by the Regional Transportation Council, Frisco decided that it's requirements for tolling support would not be met and it revoked the resolution April 4. The City of McKinney, on the other hand, has reaffirmed its support for tolling the road, hoping to get S.H. 121 built quickly and with plenty of excess funds generated to improve U.S. 75.

Still, Hatchell said that dropping support for the NTTA proposal is “premature” because there is “still a glimmer of hope,” that the RTC will accept the NTTA's bid over a private bid.

Commissioner Hoagland is not so sure, he said.

“I walked out of (a meeting with state officials) with the conclusion that one: this is going to be a toll road; two: that we need the road and three: that it needs to be done with a CDA,” he said. “We need to get with the program or we get nothing. We can object all we want to, but ultimately, it's the state's road, not Collin County's road... This is the new paradigm. This is the way of building roads in Texas.”

Commissioner Jaynes agreed that the county could end up with “a whole heap of nothing.”

However, County Judge Ron Harris said that tolling S.H. 121 through a CDA is “not right” and that other areas are experiencing the same struggles with Texas transportation officials. He added that policies could change during the next legislative session.

“It's not as dead as you believe it to be,” he said.

Other county and city officials disagree.

Last week, the RTC decided to set some requirements for S.H. 121 bidders, including an expectation that the company will pay 75 percent of the expected revenue from the road up front and that the toll rate will be 14.5 cents per mile and 17 cents at peak traffic times.

The new rules mean that private companies now have even more of an advantage than the NTTA, a non-profit, Plano-based organization.

Private bidders now, with the new toll rates, can offer $700 million to $900 million up front for the right to build the road. Earlier estimates concluded that a CDA with a private company could generate up to $575 million up front.

The North Texas Tollway Authority, on the other hand, has offered to pay $515 million over a 50-year period.

Planners are considering using tolls to pay for main-lane construction and interchanges at the Dallas North Tollway and at North Central Expressway. The cost is estimated to be $345 million.

Hatchell said that the RTC has also outlined the process for distributing excess revenue both from up front money paid by the builder and excess revenue from tolls paid by drivers on S.H. 121.

Under the RTC plan, all excess upfront revenue would be disbursed by RTC to Collin County. The excess revenue from tolls would be distributed based upon the residence of the drivers. For example, if 60 percent of the drivers on the tolled portion of S.H. 121 are from Collin County, Collin County would get 60 percent of the excess revenue.

“We've made every effort we could to change TxDOT's opinion, to change the RTC's opinion and we failed,” Hatchell said. “We need to move on with the program.”

Staff writer Amy Morenz contributed to this report.

Contact Krystal De Los Santos at

Copyright © 2006 Star Community Newspapers


"A flawed process has led to a flawed project."

Corridor watch group voices concerns:

Proposed plan environmental impact, eminent domain discussed

April 22, 2006

by Clay Coppedge
Temple Daily Telegram
Copyright 2006

ZABCIKVILLE - David and Linda Stall of aren’t sure that grassroots organizations opposed to the Trans Texas Corridor can stop the multi-billion dollar highway proposal in its tracks, but at a meeting of the Blackland Coalition on Friday night, they urged coalition members to stay involved in the process.

“You are the only thing that can change this,” Linda Stall told more than 300 coalition members early in Friday’s two-hour meeting, which also featured an Austin attorney who outlined the eminent domain process.

“You can move a gas station a couple of miles away, but you can’t take fertile topsoil and move it two miles away. Just because the land is empty doesn’t mean you have to put a subdivision on it. If we don’t stop it, they will do it,” Ms. Stall added.

David Stall called the process that has put plans for the corridor in motion a “flawed process that has led to a flawed project. No one asked us about it.”

The corridor is a multibillion, 4,000-mile plan designed to address problems with the state’s transportation systems. It comes with a price tag of $175 billion and a construction time of at least 25 years. The plan includes toll and non-toll roads of six highway lanes - three in each direction - and six high-speed freight and commuter rail lines.

The first phase of the corridor, called TTC-35, would stretch from the Red River to Laredo and roughly parallel Interstate 35. The 4,000-page Environmental Impact Study, released earlier this month, shows a preferred route and a secondary route. Both routes cut through large sections of productive agricultural land.

The Blackland Coalition is a grass roots organization dedicated to educating and informing Texas residents about the corridor.

Copyright © 2006 Temple Daily Telegram


Friday, April 21, 2006

TxDOT: Calvert would have to offer itself as a 'guinea pig' for a rural tollway bypass.

Calvert bypass a 'hard sell'

April 21, 2006

The Bryan-College Station Eagle
Copyright 2006

CALVERT - Community leaders in this small Robertson County town want a bypass directing Texas 6 traffic around the city, but funding for such a project is almost nonexistent, a state transportation official said Thursday.

Some business owners in Calvert are pushing for a bypass around downtown to help alleviate traffic problems, which they say hurt local businesses.

The 3.5-mile loop would carry a price tag of nearly $90 million, according to preliminary estimates released Thursday by the Texas Department of Transportation.

With no money in the state budget, the only way to secure funding for such a project would be through a direct appeal to the Texas Transportation Commission, TxDOT District Engineer Bryan Wood told a group of Calvert Chamber of Commerce members. The town would have to offer itself as a guinea pig of sorts for a rural tollway bypass, he said.

But even approval for a toll road is seen as a long shot, because it wouldn't generate a profit for years to come.

"This doesn't mean this is a done deal and this will never happen," Wood said Thursday during a meeting with a few chamber members. "But ... this is a hard sell."

Chamber officials have said a bypass would give 18-wheelers and other pass-through traffic an alternate route while allowing shoppers the opportunity to wander safely through downtown.

The project is backed locally by the Chamber of Commerce, the Calvert City Council and Robertson County commissioners, but at least two downtown merchants have expressed worries that a bypass would put them out of business.

Calvert has about 1,500 residents and just one main thoroughfare running through town - a four-lane, undivided section of Texas 6 that doubles as Main Street. Between 8,000 and 12,000 vehicles - about 17 percent of them 18-wheelers - travel daily along the stretch of highway, according to TxDOT estimates. Generally, four-lane highways can handle up to 40,000 cars each day, transportation officials say.

The state already is in the process of expanding Texas 6 into a four-lane, divided highway on either side of Calvert. But the town itself doesn't qualify for funding under the improvement program because the highway already is four lanes within the city limits, Wood said.

The tollway wouldn't turn a profit for at least a decade, which means the state probably wouldn't be able to borrow more than $5 million to fund the project, according to a preliminary revenue analysis. But the road could churn out more than $1 million in annual profits after about 25 years and more than $3 million after nearly 40 years, the preliminary analysis indicates.

"I think this is a great idea. I think it's needed in the future," Wood said, suggesting the chamber enlist help from state and national representatives. "But without money, things don't happen."

While pass-through traffic generally is good for a small town, Chamber of Commerce members have blamed 18-wheelers for a general decline in downtown commerce as well as building disrepair.

Vibrations from the trucks are causing Main Street buildings to crumble, and motorists often are afraid to slow down and look at the antique stores and other shops because speeding trucks are on their tails, they said. The group also has pointed to safety issues relating to children and tourists trying to cross the busy highway.

The concerns prompted the Chamber of Commerce to asked TxDOT last year to consider the feasibility of a bypass to divert 18-wheelers around the town. When it became obvious there were no funds for a standard bypass, chamber members asked the state to study the feasibility of a tollway.

Nine residents - including Calvert Mayor Marcus Greaves and Calvert Police Chief Joe Cheatham - attended the Thursday meeting. Most expressed frustration over TxDOT's funding system as they detailed the city's fruitless attempts to slow down passing traffic.

"We can sit out there all day long ... and the next day people are running red lights like we've never been there before because we get new people," Cheatham said, referring to traffic control. He asked TxDOT to consider lower speed limits through the town, a school zone for students crossing the highway and an additional stoplight on Main Street.

Other members asked whether the state weighs highway safety as heavily as traffic counts and available money when considering new routes.

"What happens if some child gets killed in the middle of the highway? Would it help us to get a bypass?" Chamber Vice President Candy Shores said, obviously irked.

A 2005 chamber survey indicated 95 percent of the organization's 43 members were in favor of the project. But not all business owners think the loop is a good idea. Removing traffic from the highway essentially removes customers from downtown businesses such as Sonny Tindle's Dairy Queen and Chrissy Daley's Daley Grind coffee shop, they said.

Tindle said that although he has loyal Calvert customers, the majority of his business comes from people who are passing through town. Giving motorists an alternate route around the city would close him down, he said.

"We're already dying on the vine," said Tindle, who is a member of the Chamber of Commerce. "I can't see what they're thinking. I don't understand it."

Daley offered similar thoughts. Roughly 95 percent of Daley's business comes from repeat pass-through traffic, she said. And most first-time customers tell her they decided to stop after spotting her shop while driving by - business she would lose with a bypass, she said.

The coffee shop owner said she isn't really worried by the idea of the bypass because she doesn't think it will come to fruition. But if it does, she likely will have to close her shop and move the business to Franklin. Society is fast-paced and, if a bypass is available, most motorists won't take the time to meander through the city just "for the heck of it," she said.

"To call Calvert a destination point? What a joke," Daley said. "That's one of their major problems. We're no longer the antique capital of the state of Texas - get a grip. Why make a square object fit into a round hole? Why not take advantage of the fact that you've got [thousands of] cars driving down Highway 6?"

• Holly Huffman's e-mail address is holly.huffman@

© 2000 - 2006 The Bryan-College Station Eagle


Too early to bet on "Big Dig" in Texas

Industrial Analysis: It's Too Early for Trans-Texas Corridor Bets

April 21, 2006
By Connie Gore
Copyright 2006

DALLAS-With planning in its infancy for a 521-mile toll road bisecting Texas, industrial leaders in the region say the $6-billion proposal isn't impacting their land-buying strategies, as yet. Logistically, the Trans-Texas Corridor plan is viewed as a winner, but it's too far out in the future to start placing bets.

The toll road, eyed as an anti-congestion vehicle for Interstate 35, isn't slated for completion until 2015. There are years to go with environmental hurdles, public hearings and final drafts before the first spade of dirt would ever turn.

In the interim, the region's heavyweight developers are staying focused on South Dallas, looking to get their market share in a land rush to neighbor Union Pacific Railroad's intermodal yard and be part of an inland port that relies on Interstate 20 as the main link to all points north, east, south and west. Besides, it could be 2011 before the Trans-Texas Corridor's path is known. Based on a recent report, an estimated 2,400 square miles of land would have to be acquired for the highway's path.

"Most investments are being made in the intermodal facility and Interstate 20 in South Dallas. It's the best investment," says Jon Napper, Texas partner for Sacramento-based Panattoni Development Co. Should the Trans-Texas Corridor become reality, he says "it's still an eight-hour drive to Laredo," reinforcing South Dallas as the best bet from a trucking and logistics standpoint. "From an industrial perspective, no one is trying to pick up sites between here and Laredo," he tells

As it stands, the initial map swings the proposed 10 mile-wide road to the east side of Dallas/Fort Worth. "As far as serving the highest population, which is what distribution is all about, it's going to go east," says Dan W. Cook, senior director for Cushman & Wakefield of Texas Inc.'s global supply chain solutions. "I think an alignment of the Trans-Texas Corridor to the east of the metroplex will improve the flow of goods through Texas. But, I can guarantee you that Tarrant County and Fort Worth are going to put their plan on the plate too."

Cook says the final route might shift the distribution channel, but it won't "draw it away entirely" from the region's interior freeways. The guarantee, he says, are the two intermodal terminals, UP's in South Dallas and Burlington Northern Santa Fe's AllianceTexas facility off Interstate 35W in northeast Tarrant.

"From an industrial, distribution and general logistics perspective, in concept, it's an excellent idea," assesses Robert Kramp, vice president and director of national client services for Grubb & Ellis Co. In the overall scheme, he says not even the toll is a deterrent. "We certainly have had a success in building toll roads in Texas," he says. "And, drivers seem willing to pay if it shaves time. If it improves mobility and at the same time increases logistics efficiency, then a fee structure seems reasonable."

Kramp says Central Texas stands to be one of the biggest winners from the plan because the route, as it's now proposed, would loop around San Antonio and Austin. "It will open up major distribution areas and position the state to be even more of a competitive force for all of North and Central America," he concludes.

Greg Fuller, managing director for Dallas-based Granite Properties, says north-south travelers will have to evaluate the cost of paying a toll versus the benefit of being able to circumvent traffic snarls. "You don't have an option to I-35 if you're going north and south," he points out. "It's a cost-benefit they'll have to weigh."

Fuller says the Granite team has been looking for land along Interstate 35, particularly since it started a hard push about two years ago to strengthen its industrial footprint. "I wouldn't say we looked for land along that path as it relates to the Trans-Texas Corridor, but we have looked for land along I-35," he says. "There are a million reasons to be located along I-35, none of which are solely related to the Trans-Texas Corridor."

History, though, has taught transportation planners that the best-laid plans can often erode existing business corridors when they are bypassed. "It's too early to tell one way or the other," Kramp says. "If it proceeds as planned, there will be some big winners, but there will be some big losers too. Like Boston's Big Dig, it was years and years in the planning but it certainly changed the Downtown. While it's not perfect, it has improved Downtown Boston."

The next step for the state and its Madrid-based private planner, Cintra-Zachry, will be to hold public meetings across the state. The first of 50 sessions were to get under way in May, but dates and locations have yet to be announced

Copyright © 2006 Real Estate Media


TxDOT and city officials want to fund toll road with property taxes.

Tollway planning halts for funding discussions

April 21, 2006

By Liz McGathey
The Rowlett Lakeshore Times
Copyright 2006

North Texas Tollway Authority executive director Allan Rutter officially suspended all design and other work on the Eastern Extension of the President George Bush Turnpike project because of a financing issue.

The move resulted from a recent submission by the city of Rowlett and the Texas Department of Transportation of an alternative method for funding the necessary right-of-way acquisition, according to the NTTA.

Rowlett city officials said the focus is not on the delay at this point, because the project is well ahead of schedule. Instead, the city is concentrating on shifting the burden of paying for the road from its taxpayers.

Stakeholders of the Eastern Extension, including the city of Rowlett, North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), continued to discuss and evaluate options for funding the Eastern Extension of the PGBT during the NTTA’s monthly board of directors meeting on Wednesday. Representatives from the city of Garland and the city of Sachse also were in attendance.

"We are committed to continuing this project, but the most important step at this point is to obtain a firm commitment among our partners for sharing in the cost of acquiring the right of way," Rutter said.

According to the NTTA Web site, the Eastern Extension is a six-lane, 9.9-mile, toll road that will pass through Garland, Sachse and Rowlett, including a one-mile bridge over Lake Ray Hubbard.

The NTTA’s project overview states construction is not scheduled to begin until 2007 and will be completed and opened by 2010. The estimated cost of the extension project is $782 million.

During the stakeholders’ meeting, Mayor Shane Johnson presented the interests of the city of Rowlett to NTTA’s board of directors.

“A solution presented by Rowlett based on TxDOT’s 90/10 statewide funding standard for right-of-way acquisition has the potential to save taxpayers of Rowlett up to 5-1/2 cents on the tax rate for the costs of project right of way,” Johnson said after the meeting. “We are pleased that this solution is now being explored by all parties and encouraged and excited about the potential benefits of the plan to our partner cities and taxpayers throughout the region.”

During the March 21 regular city council meeting, Rowlett also passed a resolution clarifying its position on the use of tollway funding for local infrastructure projects including the Eastern Extension.

The resolution states, “That the City of Rowlett urges that any tolling policy adopted by the Regional Transportation Council (RTC) for the region require that all elements of the design, engineering, right of way acquisition, construction operation, maintenance and perpetual care be completely funded on toll facilities before any ‘excess revenue’ as provided in RTC approval, dated September, 2004.”

The resolution also affirmed a $20 million cap agreement only allowing as much as that figure to go toward funding of the Eastern Extension n not as an exact amount to be paid by the city.

“All regional leaders in North Texas from RTC to NTTA to Collin County to Denton to Dallas County including TxDOT acknowledge that transportation funding has been undergoing a significant change over the last 12 months,” said City Manager Craig Owens. “The $20 million cap predated those regional conversations. New options are now available and that’s why we believe its important for us to look that those options; TxDOT agreed, so we’re going to take a couple of weeks now to explore those options as an alternative to the citizens of Rowlett funding it through property tax.”

Futhermore, Johnson said he thinks the idea of toll roads is for them to pay for themselves.

“Funding toll roads through property taxes should be the last resort after all other options are exhausted,” he said.

Since the city has been planning for the tollway for 15 to 20 years, the area for it to be built across has been reserved in order to avoid excess right of way acquisition. With less right-of-way acquisition, the savings on the total project amounts to about $30 million.

The city of Rowlett also continues to work with NTTA to ensure that design elements, critical to the future economic impact the Eastern Extension has on Rowlett, are included in the final plans and agreements.

“Even though more than 60 percent of the design is complete, the city has yet to see documentation of many elements in the plan, including the Merrit Road Interchange, U-turns, access points, and sound mitigation that have been on the table and verbally agreed to over the last two years,” Owens said. “I think we are very close on an agreement with NTTA, but the city council cannot approve an Inter Local Agreement (ILA) that does not document the mutually agreed terms.”

Johnson is optimistic about upcoming project stakeholder meetings, he said.

“With the potential 90/10 funding solution for right-of-way acquisition and documented inclusion by NTTA of PGBT design elements critical to Rowlett, there is no reason why an agreement between all interested parties could not be worked out in the coming weeks and the project be completed on schedule if not ahead of schedule,” he said.

The Eastern Extension has long been a significant component in Rowlett’s economic development efforts to transfer more of the tax base from residential property owners to commercial properties and sales tax revenue, a city press release states.

Updates on the project will continue to be provided by the city of Rowlett through the monthly City Hall News mailed with the utility bills, the quarterly Lakeside Citizen newsletter mailed to all households, the website at, and through media bulletins.

Representatives from NTTA and TxDOT did not return phone calls before press time Thursday.

Copyright © 2006 Star Community Newspapers


TxDOT: "It's not a tax. It's a user fee."

Few attend toll lanes forum

April 21, 2006

Adriana M. Chávez
El Paso Times
Copyright 2006

Texas Department of Transportation officials hosted their third open house Thursday evening on the proposed toll lanes in El Paso, aiming to further educate the community on the city's transportation needs.

However, at least one attendee said El Paso isn't ready for toll lanes, and that if constructed, tolls could have a negative snowball effect on the city's economy.

"I don't know if El Paso's economy can support" toll roads, said Eastsider Sylvia Stuckey, who was at Thursday's open house at Riverside High School, 301 Midway. "Everything is getting more expensive and gasoline is hovering close to $3 a gallon. (Toll lanes) are going to affect all areas of the economy."

Blanca Del Valle, TxDOT spokeswoman, said the three open houses TxDOT has sponsored so far have averaged about 20 to 30 attendees per night, and TxDOT will also have more public meetings in the future.

Mark C. Longenbaugh, director of transportation, planning and development for TxDOT in El Paso, said the toll lanes will be added along Interstate 10 beginning at the Texas/New Mexico state line in Anthony up to Sunland Park Drive.

Toll lanes will also be added above Paisano from the West Side into Downtown, providing the completion of Loop 375. The toll lanes will run alongside existing lanes that will remain free of charge, Longenbaugh said.

"It's not a tax. It's a user fee. No existing lanes will be tolled," Longenbaugh said. "It's a choice and a time-saving issue. People using the (toll lanes) will get to their destination faster."

Adriana M. Chávez may be reached at; 546-6117.

Copyright © 2006 El Paso Times


Wednesday, April 19, 2006

"These two transportation giants haven't come to terms on anything."

Bush Turnpike extension delayed

Rowlett: Work on hold as city, tollway agency fight over funding

April 19, 2006

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2006

PLANO – The North Texas Tollway Authority halted work Wednesday on the Bush Turnpike's eastern extension because of a long-running dispute with Rowlett about paying for land.

Rowlett is at odds with the tollway authority over the agency's suggestion that the city contribute $20 million to help defray the $150 million needed to buy land for the road from property owners. The city has passed a resolution supporting a maximum $20 million contribution but has never come to a formal agreement with the tollway authority on exactly how much to pay, Rowlett Mayor Shane Johnson said.

Until an agreement is reached, further planning and engineering work should be halted, the tollway authority's board of directors agreed Wednesday. Many officials said they didn't expect the delay to last very long.

"We're talking about a couple of weeks," Mr. Johnson said. "If it takes this type of public forum to engage the issue, we're fine with that."

Whether the impasse affects the project schedule remains unclear. Construction on the project was to begin in 2007. The turnpike section will run from State Highway 78 to Interstate 30 through Sachse, Garland and Rowlett. It is scheduled to open in 2010.

"I have no guarantee on that," said Allan Rutter, executive director of the tollway authority. "I can't make schedule guarantees until I get this critical path resolved."

Negotiations also have been more challenging because of the project's unprecedented nature. The eastern extension marks the first time that the Texas Department of Transportation and the tollway authority have tried to negotiate a split of excess toll revenue on a project that they both will help build.

On the eastern extension, the state transportation department has pledged to build the interchange at I-30 and a bridge over Lake Ray Hubbard for about $165 million. The tollway authority recently estimated that the 10-mile project would cost $782 million.

Revenue-sharing negotiations between the state and the tollway authority are progressing, but officials with both agencies have yet to reach a formal agreement. The state and tollway authority together have built other sections of the Bush Turnpike, but the state did not seek a share of the toll revenue.

Singled out?

Rowlett appears to be unfairly singled out as a sticking point in the negotiations when, in fact, the tollway authority and the Texas Department of Transportation also have had difficult financial negotiations, Mr. Johnson said.

"These two transportation giants haven't come to terms on anything," the mayor said. In previous discussions, he added, "we had to get them together to talk."

The tollway authority's work stoppage marks the latest salvo in 18 months of protracted negotiations with Rowlett. The agency, which has spent $8 million on the project's design and engineering plans, should not spend any more until right-of-way discussions have been settled with Rowlett, Mr. Rutter said.

Earlier this month, Rowlett suggested to the tollway authority that it should receive financial credit for preventing development along the route, thereby keeping land costs lower and reducing the amount of money the city should contribute.

Last week, the tollway authority rejected that idea. In a letter to Rowlett, Mr. Rutter also indicated that Rowlett's stance has prompted him and the agency to consider reducing turnpike costs by eliminating extra amenities requested by the city. Those amenities include wider frontage roads, specific intersections and U-turns.

Negotiations over land costs have created an opportunity for the state transportation department. The state has offered to help pay for the land – but probably for a price.

The state is paying 90 percent of the land costs for the sections it is building. Because the state still considers the turnpike part of the long-designated State Highway 190 loop, it could pay for a substantial share of the $150 million in land costs, said Bill Hale, the Dallas district engineer for the transportation department. In return, the state probably would consider an even greater share of the excess toll revenue collected.

"That could happen," Mr. Hale said.

Splitting the toll

The biggest issue remaining for the state and the tollway authority to work out is how to split the toll revenue not needed to pay for construction and maintenance.

"We're close on that," Mr. Hale added. "It is hard for cities to get on board without TxDOT and the NTTA being on board."

Mr. Hale went out of his way at Wednesday's meeting to point out that the state transportation department had nothing to do with the tollway authority's ongoing dispute with Rowlett.

"But since shots have been fired over each other's bow, we all need to get in a room and talk," Mr. Hale said.

Tollway authority board chairman David Blair Jr. agreed.

"This has nothing to do with TxDOT," he said.

While Mr. Rutter questioned the timing of the transportation department's offer, he said he also wanted to get the project moving again quickly. As negotiations drag on, the cost of steel, concrete and land keep rising, he said.

"This can't take months. I don't have months," he said.

Officials in Sachse and Garland, which have reached cost-sharing agreements with the tollway authority, say they will listen to new proposals from Mr. Hale and Rowlett. If no new agreement can be reached, Rowlett and the agency should hash out their existing differences, they said.

"We'll just have to see," said Robert Wunderlich, Garland's senior managing director of transportation and engineering. "We have committed to the original agreement. We don't want this new process to take six to nine months to put together."


© 2006 The Dallas Morning News Co


"It looked like it was a done deal to start with."

NTTA, city weigh next step in SH 121 debate

April 19, 2006

Amy Morenz
McKinney Courier Gazette
Copyright 2006

Two North Texas Tollway Authority board members aren’t clear about how requirements approved by the Regional Transportation Council last week will affect their agency.

Chair Dave Blair says the rules don’t look good for the NTTA to build and operate State Highway 121 toll roads. But Collin County representative Paul Wageman said the policy may apply only to private companies.

The NTTA’s staff is expected to meet with state transportation officials on April 28 to address varied issues, including its potential State Highway 121 role, Wageman said.

The NTTA is not sure if it will bid to build and operate SH 121 toll lanes after the transportation council set toll rates and decided SH 121’s approach last Thursday, Blair said.

“It doesn’t look very good with the current rules of the road,” Blair said. “They would require us to pay 75 percent of [expected revenue over a period of time] upfront, and we can’t do that. The rules of the way we do business, the bond market and legislation won’t allow us.”

In contrast, Wageman said the 75 percent requirement applies to private companies submitting a proposal through a Comprehensive Development Agreement. There’s a lot of confusion about requirements for those upfront payments, he said.

“That’s not the model the RTC wants us to pursue,” Wageman said. “We have to examine and see if the rules warrant our submitting a proposal. We’ll do that after consultation with the county and the four cities.”

Wageman’s requested an analysis from staff members before making a decision. The NTTA may consider developing future toll roads or serve as an operator for a private company, he said.

The tolls passed last week could mean a private company could pay $700 million to $900 million upfront, Plano Councilman Scott Johnson said. That amount will make it harder for the NTTA to compete for the job, he said.

Before submitting a proposal, the NTTA needs to know if the Texas Department of Transportation will conduct a “fair” evaluation, Blair said. Its representative on the Regional Transportation Council was not allowed to speak last week.

“It looked like it was a done deal to start with,” Blair said.

Johnson and Collin County Commissioner Jack Hatchell were two of the only three votes opposing an RTC plan adopting an average 14.5 cent rate per mile Thursday. The rate approved is 2.5 cents higher than the NTTA’s projections and will escalate to 17 cents per mile during peak hours.

Days after the meeting, Plano has not decided what its next step will be. The city may not have a reason to “stay in the arena” of regional cooperation supporting State Highway 121’s prospective toll roads, Plano Mayor Pat Evans said.

Allen, Plano, McKinney, Frisco and the county approved resolution supporting the NTTA as the builder of the toll road, preferring a lower toll rate. Frisco later dropped its support of the county-wide resolution.

“We were all against the proposal supported by the RTC and will have a serious discussion,” Evans said. “We’ll be discussing to see if there’s a reason to stay in. There may be a strategy we can come up with.”

From the start, the state has shown a preference for a private company to sign a Comprehensive Development Agreement to build and manage the toll lanes. Additional revenues from the SH 121 are predicted to finance road projects throughout the region.

“The other cities were bought because they won’t have to pay for their own roads,” Johnson said. “The state is not asking them for matching funds when we had to match our costs. That’s why they wanted to vote quickly.”

“I’m tired of paying for other people’s schools and other peoples roads,” Johnson said.

The public sector can’t compete with private companies, said Hatchell. Collin County thought it could develop a plan that would be approved regionally, but the resolution did not generate the revenue that the Texas Department of Transportation wants. Private companies are expected to submit their bids in November.

“There’s still an opportunity for the NTTA, but it’s very remote,” Hatchell said. “They are going to have to get aggressive.”

Collin County may need to “mend some fences” when it continues meeting with Texas Highway Commission members, Hatchell said. Collin County initially wanted to create its own entity to build and manage the tollway. County leaders later passed a resolution supporting the NTTA and lower toll rates.

“Some may feel we tried to push our ideas down their throats,” Hatchell said.

Contact staff writer Amy Morenz at 972-398-4263 or

© 2006 Star Community Newspapers


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

NTSB: "The most dangerous place on the highway is the toll plaza."

Toll Plazas, Too Often the Scene of Crashes, Should Have Design Standards, Safety Board Says


Associated Press
Copyright 2006

WASHINGTON (AP) The most dangerous place on the highway is the toll plaza, say federal safety investigators who are urging changes to reduce accidents like one that claimed eight lives in Illinois.

Though highway safety issues such as drunken driving, seat belt use and air bag deployment are debated, studied and regulated, toll plaza safety has been virtually ignored.

''Toll plazas have been designed for 50 years without national design standards,'' Dan Walsh, an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said during a Tuesday hearing on the Illinois crash.

More toll plazas are being built and old ones are being retrofitted for electronic toll collection, he said.

''The need for standards is paramount,'' Walsh said.

The NTSB recommended Tuesday that federal highway officials develop design standards to reduce the number of crashes at toll plazas. Those may include guidelines on signs, pavement markings, lane width or rumble strips.

The recommendations resulted from the investigation of a chain-reaction crash on Oct. 1, 2003, that killed eight people near Hampshire, Ill.

A speeding Freightliner tractor-trailer slammed into the back of a small bus that had nearly stopped at an interstate toll plaza about 50 miles west of Chicago.

The Freightliner slammed into the bus, pushing it into another truck and causing a five-vehicle pileup. Killed in the crash were eight of the 22 passengers in the bus, which carried a group returning from a garden tour.

The safety board blamed the inattentive Freightliner driver.

Investigators also said that traditional toll booths, where drivers pay attendants or throw money into an automatic coin machine, increase the danger of rear-end collisions because drivers must stop suddenly.

NTSB investigators said:

-49 percent of all interstate accidents in Illinois are at toll plazas, and three times as many people die in them as in accidents on the road itself.

-30 percent of all accidents on the Pennsylvania toll highway system happen at toll plazas.

-38 percent of all crashes on New Jersey toll highways are toll plaza accidents.

Introducing electronic toll collection lanes, though, can make the problem worse.

Mohamed Abdel-Aty, associate professor at Central Florida University's department of civil and environmental engineering, studied the Orlando-Orange County Expressway system in Florida.

Between January 1994 and June 1997, 31.6 percent of total crashes occurred at the 10 main toll plazas and 46.3 percent at the 38 toll booth ramps, Abdel-Aty found.

Introducing E-PASS electronic toll collection lanes beside the regular lanes increased the accident rate at the busy Holland-East Mainline Plaza, he found.

''It's the mixture of E-PASS lanes and other lanes -the confusion from nonfamiliar drivers - that's causing most of the rear-end collisions,'' Abdel-Aty said.

One key to preventing crashes at toll booths, he said, is separating drivers who have to stop from those who don't. Drivers also need signs and lane markings that give them enough time to get into the proper lane, he said.

The Federal Highway Administration is expected to finish a study on best practices for toll plazas this summer, NTSB investigators said.

Connecticut abolished all of its toll booths in 1989 after a crash six years earlier when a tractor-trailer rig plowed into cars at the Stratford toll plaza, killing seven and injuring many more.

''That got the legislature saying, 'We've hated these things for years,''' said Connecticut transportation department spokesman Chris Cooper. ''Clearly we felt there was a safety issue.''

The state, though, is considering reinstating tolls as a way of raising money for new roads and easing congestion. Connecticut has applied for federal money to study a concept in which vehicles with electronic toll cards would slow slightly as they pass under an overhead transponder system. A cash lane would be separate from the flow of traffic.

''It would be like getting off at a rest stop,'' Cooper said.

Thirty states have toll facilities and 20 have none, according to the Federal Highway Administration.


On the Net: National Transportation Safety Board:

© 2006 The Associated Press:


"Build a 2,000-mile fence to keep out illegals and spend megabucks to make it faster for them to get dope to the big cities."

Letters to the Editor:

Something stinks

April 18, 2006

The Victoria Advocate
Copyright 2006

Editor, the Advocate:

I read two articles lately about the Trans-Texas Corridor "traffic and trade route from Oklahoma to Mexico" and "$5 billion rail line from Mexico to Dallas-Fort Worth." Then an article about "$3 million in marijuana found" in a truck going toward Houston.

We build a 2,000-mile fence to keep out the Mexican and other illegals and spend megabucks to make it faster for them to get the dope to the big cities. It just doesn't make sense to me, but then I'm a skeptic and methinks something stinks.



© 2006 The Victoria Advocate:


"Anti-Kelo state statutes all have more bark than bite."

Eminent domain is dead! (Long live eminent domain!)

April 16, 2006

By David Barron
The Boston Globe
Copyright 2006

LAST SUMMER IN Kelo v. City of New London, the Supreme Court upheld a redevelopment plan for New London, Conn., that involved seizing private homes to enable commercial development near a major pharmaceutical company. New London argued the plan would jump-start the stalled local economy, and the decision, a 5-to-4 vote, affirmed the government's power under the Consitution to use eminent domain to take private property for economic development as long as just compensation is paid.

No sooner had the court issued its decision than widespread opposition arose. Spurred by the warning in Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's dissent that the ruling threatened to trade in every Motel 6 for a Ritz, press accounts played up the likelihood that cities would soon seize middle-class homes and small businesses to enhance the local tax base. The result was a broad legislative backlash that has been portrayed as stunningly successful. A recent front-page headline of The New York Times announced, ''States Curbing Right to Seize Private Homes." It joined other recent stories-including a similar piece on the front page of USA Today-that suggest the Supreme Court's decision will soon be a dead letter. ''It's open season on eminent domain," Larry Morandi of the National Conference of State Legislators told the Times. And that's more or less how the Times and others have played it.

But while virtually every state, including Massachusetts, is considering legislation to curb Kelo, a closer look at the legislative response reveals a different story. As moving as the plight of holdouts like the Connecticut resident who was the lead plaintiff in Kelo may be, Americans have long been of two minds when it comes to property rights. On the one hand, there is the old notion that ownership is inviolable, a home is a castle, and the government has no business messing with private property. On the other hand, there is the equally old notion that no one is an island and that the value in any individual's property is deeply interconnected with the health of the community as a whole. Eminent domain may be a power that people love to hate, but it's also one that communities that are serious about planning are rightly reluctant to restrict-and one that should not have to be used only in poor and minority neighborhoods, where residents usually have the least amount of political influence.

As a legal matter, the Constitution says the government can only take private property for a ''public use," but more than a century of precedent interprets that requirement to mean government may use eminent domain for a ''public purpose." Just as government took private property to promote private railroads and mills a century ago, it has done so in recent decades to promote commercial building to revitalize urban areas, from the Inner Harbor in Baltimore to Lincoln Center in New York City.

New London's effort to address its severe economic distress by using eminent domain for private waterfront development seemed well within bounds to the court's majority, even though it involved taking homes in good repair. Nevertheless, the decision came as a shock to many unfamiliar with constitutional case law, generating a groundswell of opposition spanning the usual left-right divide.

Anything opposed by both the conservative Institute for Justice and the liberal NAACP would not seem long for this world, the authority Kelo upheld has thus far survived largely unscathed. As many as 50 anti-Kelo bills are pending in some states, and, at last count, 14 states have enacted laws against it. But to this point, only one has a new law that actually limits eminent domain to government-owned development projects, such as roads, schools, and airports. And that state is South Dakota-which has a legislature that is not big on nuance lately, having just banned abortions in all cases except to save the life of the mother.

The other anti-Kelo state statutes all have more bark than bite-and, interestingly enough, tend to allow exemptions for eminent domain aimed at redevelopment in blighted areas. For example, Alabama's, the first to pass, provides that eminent domain can't be used for economic development except ''on a finding of blight in any area covered by any redevelopment plan or urban renewal plan." That means even a fine house in a ''bad" neighborhood may be taken as part of a broader redevelopment project.

Texas's law contains strong pro-property rights rhetoric before providing that taking private property and handing it to private developers is just fine so long as the private benefit results incidentally from community development or urban renewal efforts aimed at improving ''blighted areas." Another section permits eminent domain in connection with a pending stadium project for the Dallas Cowboys, while yet another allows it for constructing a museum.

Idaho, Kentucky, West Virginia, Utah, and Wisconsin have enacted similarly porous legislation. Indiana and Georgia arguably have somewhat stricter new laws, but they, too, exempt blighted properties, and Indiana's law expressly permits takings for technology parks. Laws passed by Colorado, Delaware, and Ohio are even less aggressive, and Michigan has simply kicked the issue to voters by calling for a constitutional referendum. Thus, the Institute for Justice, which once seemed poised to win a clean sweep, now merely touts the fact that many states have ''in some way" responded to Kelo.

Of course, it's only been one year. But the pending legislation is itself riddled with carve outs in which the very thing that supposedly must be stopped-using eminent domain to transfer property from one private person to another-is expressly permitted.

For its part, Congress has enacted one symbolic anti-Kelo bill, while another bill has passed the House that bans federal funds to states that do not bar the kind of takings Kelo permits. But the federal government is on the hook for lots of money to redevelop areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, and eminent domain involving transfers to private developers is likely to be a key feature. What's more, many real estate developers, known to make political contributions, strongly defend the decision. It's unlikely that federal legislation restricting eminent domain will go too far.

But it's more than the developer lobby that's slowing the backlash. Large numbers of communities in America are in need of revitalization while others are eager to maintain themselves as lively, attractive places. Eminent domain is one tool for improving the conditions of neighborhoods. One of our own area's most successful community development organizations, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, for example, lobbied to be given the power of eminent domain in the 1980s so it could revive a long-depressed neighborhood in Roxbury. By taking privately owned abandoned property, and developing housing in its place, the private community group was able to do just that.

But while the real story of the Kelo backlash should be welcome news for those concerned about the future of cities, the power it upholds can be abused. The potential for corruption is great, and, as Justice Clarence Thomas powerfully argued in his Kelo dissent, poor and minority communities may be hurt by redevelopment plans that claim to help them. The federally subsidized urban renewal programs of the 1950s cleared many close-knit neighborhoods in order to promote private development. The dubious results, combined with the massive displacement that resulted, led many to refer to urban renewal derisively as ''Negro removal."

The fact that many anti-Kelo bills restrict the use of eminent domain to blighted areas should therefore trouble even the decision's supporters. ''Blight" is often code for black and poor. One of Kelo's striking features was that it permitted a city to use eminent domain even without showing that the targeted neighborhood was blighted, so long as it implemented a real plan for redevelopment. In that way, the court indicated cities should not have to do redevelopment on the backs of poor and minority residents in order to comply with the Constitution. There's nothing to cheer in a legislative reaction that would now limit local governments to doing just that.

Rather than banning eminent domain for economic development, or restricting it to ''bad" neighborhoods, we should focus on reforms that would ensure the communities in which it is so often used have a say in the planning process. That means ensuring those who are least likely to have a voice in economic redevelopment get one.

Shifting decision-making power over eminent domain from unaccountable redevelopment authorities to local city councils is a start. So, too, is requiring community development corporations to be part of the planning process and to make that process meaningful. But prohibiting our cities and towns-and the poor and minority residents within them-from reaping the benefits of a powerful development tool that can attract new jobs and improve deteriorating conditions makes little sense.

Thankfully, the Supreme Court has enabled us to determine how useful a tool eminent domain can be. Equally important, the opposition Kelo stirred has not yet resulted in the overreaction that once seemed inevitable.

David Barron is a professor at Harvard Law School, where he specializes in state and local government law and constitutional law.

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.


Monday, April 17, 2006

Texas Pols get five strikes

79th Legislature: Special Session

Stakes higher than ever as lawmakers hunker down with Perry tax plan

Deadline to cut off schools' money adding pressure on legislators to succeed in fifth try to change finance system.

April 17, 2006

By Jason Embry
Austin-American Statesman
Copyright 2006

The people running Texas these days have closed a budget gap, limited lawsuits, required moments of silence in schools, voted to ban gay marriage (twice), stopped setting college tuition rates, created toll roads and raised their own retirement pay.

But they've been unable to do what many of them were sent to Austin to do: lower property taxes and change the state's school finance system.

Lawmakers are not supposed to meet in even-numbered years, but they'll return today for a 30-day special session that Gov. Rick Perry called to give them one last crack at finding a new way to pay for public education.

They tried to do it four times in the past two years. Each time they failed. They fail this time, and the Texas Supreme Court says it will shut off state funding for public schools, potentially keeping schools from reopening after summer break in August.

"A lot of the districts aren't going to have money to pay their teachers come July if they don't do something," said Clayton Downing of the Texas School Coalition, a group of school districts with high property values.

Politically, nobody has more to lose than Perry, who went so far as to enlist his one-time political nemesis — former Comptroller John Sharp, a Democrat — to help him create a tax-swap plan that lawmakers could support.

Perry is pushing lawmakers to reduce property taxes for school maintenance and operations by one-third, replacing that money with a broadened business tax (called the margins tax), a higher cigarette tax and about $1 billion from the state's surplus.

"I am as optimistic about the overall approach to this as I have been in the 5 1/2 years that I have been the governor," Perry said.

The owner of a $100,000 home stands to save about $425 a year in school property taxes under Perry's plan, a savings that could start to diminish if school boards and other local governments raise their tax rates.

The margins tax is the most ambitious and controversial of Perry's proposals. It would replace the corporate franchise tax and pick up about 50,000 businesses that now legally avoid paying the franchise tax, the state's general business tax.

Businesses in the service sector — doctors, lawyers, architects — that often avoid the franchise tax because they are partnerships and not corporations would start paying.

Most of the state's 2.4 million businesses, however, would not have to pay the tax because it would exempt sole proprietorships and those with annual gross receipts of $300,000 or less, and most businesses are small businesses.

The House, where all tax proposals are constitutionally required to begin, will start working with Perry's plan, and changes are likely to ensue. The Senate will wait for the House to send a bill over, and in the meantime, senators will try to tackle a couple of education reforms in the hopes they'll be added to the session's agenda.

Last year, the two chambers disagreed on such broad issues as whether to rely more on the sales tax and other consumption taxes or business taxes and how much money the state's wealthiest school districts should have to share with others.

Perry has said he will give lawmakers an agenda focused narrowly on changing the tax structure.

If lawmakers can reach consensus there, other issues could surface, including teacher pay raises, increased education spending and limits on local tax increases.

Even if lawmakers answer the Supreme Court's call for a new school finance system, some of their original campaign promises may stay unfulfilled.

Many lawmakers pledged as candidates to end or severely rein in the share-the-wealth nature of the state's school finance system, dubbed Robin Hood by some. Even if Perry's plan passes, schools with the highest property values in the state will continue to share some of their revenue with other districts.

The courts have ruled that system to be legal.

© 2006 Austin American-Statesman:


Sunday, April 16, 2006

Comptroller is in the Catbird Seat

Strayhorn holds power in session

Strayhorn's control over limits for school funding could put rival Perry in a tight spot

April 16, 2006

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2006

AUSTIN – As lawmakers gather today for a politically supercharged math test on school finance, here's a rule to remember: Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn is the only calculator that counts.

Under state law, the comptroller tells the Legislature how much money the state has – and legislators can't spend a penny more.

That means Mrs. Strayhorn, who is challenging Gov. Rick Perry, controls the numbers in a special session that might reduce property taxes and make sure that schools open on time.
Or, to the governor's detriment, might not.

"In this situation, she is the most powerful player," said Republican consultant Royal Masset. "She controls the variable in this session – the spending limits."

The Legislature convenes today for a fifth try in two years to repair the state's system of funding public schools, which courts have ruled unconstitutional. Mrs. Strayhorn will announce how much money leaders have as they face a June 1 deadline to fix the system.

Mr. Perry, who seeks re-election in November, has his sights on lowering property taxes, and he has a plan to raise business and cigarette taxes to pay for it.

Mrs. Strayhorn, a Republican running as an independent in hopes of unseating the governor in November, has denounced Mr. Perry's leadership, dismissed his plan and chided him for not aspiring to higher goals on education.

She advocates an across-the-board pay raise for teachers and spending on education overhauls to cut dropout rates and raise standardized test scores.

If she announces a sizable surplus today and the Legislature then doesn't tackle education improvements – or simply fails to solve the property-tax issue – she could have a potent political issue in the fall, experts say.

The Perry camp sees a trap.

"She will, without a doubt, try to sabotage this session any way she can because it will be to her political benefit," said Robert Black, the governor's campaign spokesman.

Mrs. Strayhorn said she is required under the state constitution to provide an accurate revenue estimate and to certify whether the budget is balanced.

"The numbers are what the numbers are," she said Friday as she panned the governor's proposal. "I'm straight up. I take that responsibility very, very seriously."

In addition to declaring the state's fiscal health, Mrs. Strayhorn's office will also analyze tax proposals and their long-term effects. Though projections for years down the road can prove wrong as the economy changes, her assessments could create doubt about whether lawmakers are fixing the school finance system or creating new problems instead.

A potential advantage

Texas politics is rich with examples of comptrollers using their fiscal authority for political advantage, either to advance their own programs or damage an opponent.

Democratic Rep. Pete Laney, a former House speaker, recalled an old axiom: "It's real hard to take politics out of politics."

In 1986, Comptroller Bob Bullock damaged the re-election chances of Gov. Mark White, a political adversary, with a dire revenue warning that forced the governor to call a special session and raise $1 billion in sales and gasoline taxes.

"Mark White was probably leading [the governor's race] at that point," Mr. Masset said. "The tax increase did him in."

The political feud between Mrs. Strayhorn and Mr. Perry has escalated in recent years.
Mrs. Strayhorn rankled Republicans three years ago by rejecting a state budget that she said didn't balance, and more recently she stopped payment on a state contract with lobbyists tied to Mr. Perry.

With the governor's backing, Republicans stripped her office of two high-profile programs and conducted an audit of her office's tax rulings and campaign contributors. The Perry campaign is using the audit against her in the re-election race.

On Friday, Mrs. Strayhorn offered a scathing assessment of what she repeatedly called "Perry's tax-increase plan."

Moreover, there were indications she'll announce a healthy budget surplus today, perhaps even double the $4.3 billion lawmakers are already counting on. Experts say that could position her to bash Mr. Perry as raising taxes in times of plenty – or complain if money is spent only to cut property taxes and not give more to schools.

Session outcome is key

Politically, experts say, she would benefit most if the Legislature deadlocks. In her gubernatorial campaign, she says the state needs new leadership.

"She makes or breaks school finance," Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas, who sponsored the 2003 legislation transferring programs from her office.

"I have never felt that Bullock or [former Comptroller John] Sharp were not a full participant in doing the best thing," he said. "I do not feel that about Carole."

Singer-author Kinky Friedman is also challenging Mr. Perry as an independent. The Democratic nominee is Chris Bell.

Some Democrats, fearing the comptroller's candidacy jeopardizes their party's prospects, have also targeted Mrs. Strayhorn as an opportunist capable of juggling the numbers for political gain.

"The bottom line is that you have two Republicans – Carole Strayhorn and Rick Perry – playing games," said Democratic consultant Ed Martin. "That isn't going to hire another teacher or buy another textbook or put another computer in a classroom or give anybody the property tax relief they need."

Meanwhile, Perry associates are bracing for Mrs. Strayhorn's outsized influence in the special session.

"I'm sure they're all trying to figure out what she's going to pull on them," Mr. Masset said. "They're like monkeys that can't do anything in the shock experiment. All they can do is wait for the shocks and hope they don't hurt too much."


What to expect

The legislative session on property taxes and school finance will start today. The highlights:
Gov. Rick Perry will reveal the topics for the session, known as "the call." Lawmakers can pass legislation only on the matters the governor deems fit. Fixing school finance will top the list.
Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn is expected to report how much money the state has for lawmakers to spend.

The House and Senate both convene at 2 p.m. The House will hear from John Sharp, chairman of the commission that drafted Gov. Rick Perry's tax-swap plan. He'll take questions from members.

A House and Senate committee will hold a joint hearing on the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission's program of arresting people in bars in a public intoxication crackdown, which has drawn a loud public outcry.

© 2006 The Dallas Morning News Co


TTC-69: "Another ball of wax being promoted by Gov. Rick Perry and his foreign investors."

Letters to the Editor:

Stop two monsters

April 16, 2006

The Victoria Advocate
Copyright 2006

Editor, the Advocate:

I noticed that Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority is shopping around for $200,000 to help fund yet another study as to why the Lower Guadalupe Basin can stay flooded for up to nine months at a time. First, any idiot can drive across the river and see part of the problem. The river channel is silted up and needs to be scraped out. How about doing that first? Second, considering GBRA's $47 million budget surplus, it's a little gluttonous to be asking for help with a mere $200,000.

Thanks to Bill Jones of O'Connor Ranches and Art Dohmann of Goliad for pointing out yet another pompous prevarication by Bill West of GBRA concerning his erroneous comments about nearly $400,000 wanted by that agency for the Lower Guadalupe Water Supply Project (LGWSP).

Oops. Back up. Wait. Didn't Bob Keith tell the public at a candidates forum at the college that there was no LGWSP? Hmmm. Check the videotape. Yup, that's what he said all right. Shall we demand yet another recant?

The term "Trans-Texas Corridor/I-69" is an erroneous misnomer that describes a project that will devastate northern and western Victoria County. Above and beyond the land taken for the corridor itself, there will be private land confiscated by eminent domain to provide property for "concessionaires."

And considering the Y where the corridor will split from following U.S. Highway 59 to follow U.S. Highway 77 south, there will be prime spots in demand from Fordtran through Mission Valley and all the way through Fleming Prairie and the McFadden area.

Just renaming U.S. 59 as I-69 and upgrading it is fine, but the Trans-Texas Corridor is another ball of wax being promoted by Gov. Rick Perry and his foreign investors. Investors who could pump our groundwater to New York if they wanted, and our Water Conservation District would have no jurisdiction to stop them!

Water Research Group will hold a meeting April 30 to discuss the corridor and how to derail a bad project. The public is invited to attend at the Victoria Electric Coop from 7 to 9 p.m. Readers should come help stop yet another monster. They can check out for what the Texas Department of Transportation isn't telling us.



© 2006 The Victoria Advocate:


"What we're starting to see in the Legislature now is more concern about re-election and money and less concern about what's right for Texas."

Lobbyists' money talks — softly, but it's heard


Lisa Sandberg and Kelly Guckian
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

AUSTIN — Telephone giant SBC spent as much as $7 million last year hiring 112 Texas lobbyists — and ended up with a new law that allowed it to charge what it wants for no-frills phone options, and made it easier to offer television service.

Insurance interests have contributed more than $3.8 million in the past five years to the campaigns of the 18 legislative committee members who oversee insurance laws — and wound up with a homeowners' bill in 2003 widely seen as favoring the industry.

No one has proof that SBC's well-funded campaign to overhaul the state's telecommunications law, or the funneling of campaign contributions by insurance interests, led to victory at the Capitol.

But even the state's best-paid lobbyist says it would be naive to suggest that big bucks aren't effective.

Superlobbyist Russell "Rusty" Kelley knows special interest money often prevails. He represents those interests — and sometimes finds himself pitted against consumers.

"There isn't a level playing field," he said.

Last year, he earned between $4.4 million and $5.5 million representing 63 clients — and in turn donated $143,000 to legislators and state officials. He knows that to remain influential, he has to spend generously on candidates who later will, Kelley hopes, support his interests.

Kelley says he's not aware of any quid pro quo connecting money with legislation. Rather, the influence of the lobby is more subtle.

"If you're asking me if I'd give money if I didn't do what I do, the answer is obviously no," the 58-year-old Kelley said.

Welcome to the world of lobbying, where in Texas anywhere from 1,300 to 1,700 special interest representatives try to woo, sway and educate lawmakers into supporting their clients' pet causes.

For four days beginning today, the San Antonio Express-News will focus on the Texas lobby, tracking the money it spends and the influence it yields.

A review of thousands of state records shows legislation often is introduced by powerful lawmakers after lobbyists spend lavishly on their campaigns and entertain them.

Some of the most influential lobbyists once were legislators themselves, and often gain direct access to former colleagues right after leaving office.

Lobbyists work behind the scenes and they don't talk publicly about what they do. "It'd be the kiss of death," one lobbyist said over pizza at a trendy restaurant in downtown Austin.

As most states and the federal government consider various reforms to tighten lobbying restrictions, the lobby in Texas has grown increasingly powerful.

The value of lobby contracts has risen virtually every year, soaring last year to anywhere from $146 million to $304 million — lobbyists are required to report amounts only in ranges — according to Texans for Public Justice, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in Texas politics. That's 77 percent higher than 1995 figures.

Spending on food, entertainment and gifts has skyrocketed 179 percent over the same period, to $2.87 million last year from $1.03 million in 1995. Last year's figure amounts to about $15,900 worth of perks for each of the 181 lawmakers — more than double their $7,200-a-year salary.

Unlike the federal government and 22 other states, Texas has no cooling-off period barring lawmakers or their top aides from lobbying after they leave office, and has no cap on the money lobbyists or their backers can dole out in contributions, meals or entertainment.

The potential for abuse is enormous, and the state agency in charge of monitoring lobbyists has received 1,500 sworn complaints since its founding in 1992. However, the Texas Ethics Commission has never conducted a complete audit or subpoenaed a single document, or subpoenaed and met with a witness in person.

Since 1992, the commission has initiated only one sworn complaint, has conducted one formal hearing and has not forwarded a single case to a law enforcement agency for criminal prosecution, the commission acknowledged.

Jack Abramoff may have made Washington lobbying a bad word, but that hasn't put a dent in the lobby's influence in Texas.

Rookie lobbyist Scott Gilmore has spent $4,000 on meals since early 2005 for Texas lawmakers, their staff and others connected to his clients' largely prison-related interests. Sometimes he bought lunch for entire committees. Other meals were more intimate.

By the end of the session in May, four lawmakers whose names appeared on his itemized spending reports carried bills that would benefit his clients. At least one proposal, opening county jails to private companies selling commissary goods, became law.

Gilmore says the meals had nothing to do with what he described as a good first session.

"I can't imagine any legislator who's willing to be bought with a steak. The notion is absurd," he said.

Robert Stern, president of the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies in California, said a steak — or a campaign contribution — might not "buy" lawmakers, but it's almost certain to buy access by buying their time. "And time is worth a lot of money," Stern said.

Though deals probably are rare, Stern said lobbyists and their clients spend money on politicians because over time it's proved to be a good investment.

"It's hard to say, 'We've done a scientific experiment in the lab and here's scientific evidence of what money buys.' You can't prove it, but you can say that smart people don't waste their money."

Money dominates at the Capitol

Critics say the lobby, and the special interest money behind it, exerts a subtle but unmistakable influence on state lawmakers, bankrolling campaigns and in some cases subsidizing lavish lifestyles.

The line between lobbying and influence peddling can be narrow, attracting the interest of prosecutors when gifts and campaign contributions result in explicit agreements for votes or support of legislation.

Former associates of outgoing Rep. Tom DeLay recently pleaded guilty to a variety of influence peddling charges that have implicated several members of Congress in a federal investigation into the Abramoff bribery scandal.

The millions of dollars that lobbyists and their special interest clients pour into political campaigns and the legislative arena help give them access. Elected officials take their calls, invite them into their offices, and typically respond quicker than they do to ordinary citizens who are not financially invested or connected.

"The worst thing is that people are cynical," said San Antonian Kevin Colson, a dairy products exporter who specializes in Mexican trade.

"Money is dominating things today, and people are letting it happen," Colson said. "We have been sitting back on our laurels and forgot that the democratic process means that people participate. I think people are realizing it and starting to push back against corrupt, big money."

But for now, "small people really don't play in this game," said Craig McDonald, of Texans for Public Justice. He said most people seem to understand that "government is by and for the special interests and their lobbyists."

Lobbyists and their clients say they have every right to try to influence government with whatever resources they can muster.

"One of the things we won't do as an industry is apologize for petitioning our government," said Rick Gentry, executive director of the Insurance Council of Texas, a trade association that represents 540 insurance companies. "We hire a lot of people, we pay a lot of taxes and we invest heavily in our state and yes, we do petition our government and I don't find anything wrong with that."

Scandal can breed reform

Texas lobbyists number anywhere from 1,300 when the Legislature isn't in session to 1,700 when it is. At peak levels, the number amounts to more than nine lobbyists per state lawmaker. Each day, this group of men and women try to persuade politicians to push their clients' agendas, from cutting business taxes to deregulating utility rates.

Most work in-house for a single interest, like a corporation or a trade association. A smaller number of hired guns hang a shingle outside an office and work for whoever hires them. Some work alone, others in informal or formal partnerships. Some of the most successful are former lawmakers or former aides to lawmakers who cycle in and out of government.

Former state Rep. Mike Toomey briefly left his lucrative lobbying business in 2002 to become Gov. Rick Perry's chief of staff for one regular and two special legislative sessions.

Toomey wielded enormous influence. Some say he had too much.

"I can't tell you how often I was frustrated standing on the House floor and watching legislators walking out and come back in and say, 'Well, you know Toomey called me and I can't.' It all comes from the top down," former Democratic state Rep. Glenn Maxey of Austin said.

At least 19 lobbyists took in over $1 million last year.

The top earner appears to be Kelley, onetime aide to former House Speaker Billy Clayton. While he earned at least $4.4 million, it is impossible to discern the exact amount because Texas requires lobbyists to disclose their earnings only in ranges. Contracts over $200,000 are reported with an imprecise "$200,000 or more."

About 30 of the 1,700 lobbyists work for consumer or environmental groups, according to Texans for Public Justice. The rest represent business interests.

Schmoozers by trade, they're good for more than just a free meal or basketball game. They're experts on their issues and lawmakers often tap them for a briefing or for help drafting a bill or an amendment.

"Because we're citizen legislators and because there's no way we can be experts on every issue, we depend on people you can trust, which a lot of times are lobbyists who give you very good information," said Sen. Troy Fraser, a Republican from Horseshoe Bay who chairs the Business and Commerce Committee.

They often have been a source of scandal.

In the 1980s, Texas newspapers carried accounts of House Speaker Gib Lewis, on a trip to Mexico, living it up at an $800-a-night hotel paid for by the San Antonio law firm of Heard, Goggan, Blair & Williams. Four lawmakers spent four days on the ski slopes of Taos, N.M. — courtesy of the lobby.

And chicken magnate Lonnie "Bo" Pilgrim, with an interest in workers' compensation reform, handed out $10,000 checks in 1989 to key state senators on the eve of an important vote.

Such reports created an uproar and, in 1991, legislators were pressured into adopting a series of reforms. Among the most far reaching was the creation of an Ethics Commission, which voters passed as a constitutional amendment, to oversee the lobby; and disclosure laws requiring lawmakers to report gifts, meals and entertainment above a certain amount.

Almost overnight, the new laws put a halt to the excesses that had become synonymous with the Texas lobby. Lawmakers now are prohibited from such common practices as walking into a club and putting their drinks on a lobbyist's tab without the lobbyist being present.

But the lobby's influence didn't diminish. Lobbyists went from currying favors with meals and trips to currying favors with campaign money, watchdog groups say and spending reports suggest.

That's been the trend seen around the country, said Stern, of the Center for Governmental Studies.

"As you restrict what a lobbyist can do with gifts and travel, you make campaign contributions more important," he said.

Lobbyists and their firms gave upward of $4.3 million to the campaigns of House and Senate candidates in 2004, compared with the $1.5 million they spent on food, entertainment and gifts for lawmakers, their staff or invited guests.

"If you think lawmakers are being bought with dinners, you're missing the big story," said Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans for Public Justice, noting that far more influence stems from campaign contributions.

Influx of special interest money

It is the unlimited influx of special interest money in political campaigns where watchdog groups focus their ire.

In the 2002 election, for instance, more than $16 million in statewide political contributions flowed from a single ZIP code — downtown Austin, 78701, where lobbyists are concentrated — nearly four times the amount sent from any other ZIP code, according to Texans for Public Justice.

The impact of lobby money trying to influence election outcomes concerns some of the veteran lobbyists.

Campaign money matters more now than it has in the past, says one lobbyist, who didn't want to be identified for fear that speaking out would cause retribution against his clients.

"The system has changed in the last few years. I don't want to say that issues always mattered, but they matter less now than ever before because what happened is that a small group of clients with a tremendous amount of money control the system," the lobbyist said. "What you get is a small group of lobbyists controlling the money.

"I've had more members of the Legislature in the last few years tell me that they're for something and then not vote for it. In the past, they felt bad about it. Now, they say, 'That's where my money comes from,'" the lobbyist said. "What we're starting to see in the Legislature now is more concern about re-election and money and less concern about what's right for Texas."

The most effective groups are ones with enough money to play the game at both ends: trying to elect friendly politicians and also lobbying all members, said Scott McCown, a retired state judge who is now executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin-based nonprofit organization that advocates for poor and middle-income Texans.

"If I've got money to change an election, it's going to be a lot easier on me to change your mind. If I'm only trying to change your mind on the basis of your intellect and patriotism, it's much harder," McCown said.

Lobby money buys more than just campaign mailers.

It funds — or is perceived to fund — the good life.

Sen. Frank Madla's primary defeat in March after more than 30 years representing San Antonio in the Legislature widely was seen as stemming from unflattering news reports that he took $1.7 million from his campaign funds over the past three years and used more than $19,000 of it on liquor; $7,000 on bottled water; and nearly $83,000 on an apartment in Austin.

Texas law bars politicians from using campaign funds for personal use, but it doesn't define personal use and it doesn't set caps. An apartment in Austin can be useful for a candidate with official business in the capital, but it can also be used to subsidize that candidate's lifestyle.

Lewis, of Campaigns for People, said the current system leaves Texas government agencies vulnerable to influence peddling.

He advocates putting limits on wining and dining and supports reforms ensuring that lawmakers get enough taxpayer-funded resources for their offices that they don't need — and are barred from taking — lobby money.

"They don't appear to be independent actors," Lewis said. "It would be like you and me driving a lobbyist's car and then saying we're independent. It's crazy."

Targeting state's insurance crisis

In the early years of this decade, Texas had an insurance crisis on its hands.

For a series of reasons, including a mold scare and largely unregulated prices, Texas homeowners saw insurance premiums skyrocket to more than double the national average. The price increases weren't enough, however, to reverse the huge losses insurance companies were reporting.

"State Farm was losing $50 million a month" by 2002, said Beaman Floyd, a longtime insurance lobbyist. "The marketplace was about to collapse."

In 2002, Gov. Rick Perry declared the situation a state emergency and assured homeowners they would get relief in the 2003 session.

Consumer advocates say it was a mostly empty promise.

Senate Bill 14, which passed on the very last day of the regular session, eliminated a loophole companies had used to skirt price regulation.

But it did little to decrease rates. Moreover, it eliminated the state's standardized comprehensive coverage policy, allowing companies instead to provide a complex array of coverage options. And it allowed companies to continue to use credit scoring — which critics say discriminates against the poor — in determining who gets covered and how much those who are approved pay.

In the years since, premiums have fallen about 5 percent — they remain more than double the national average — while losses have dropped 85 percent, says Alex Winslow of Texas Watch, a consumer advocacy group that opposed Senate Bill 14.

Consumer advocates have no evidence that insurance money directed at the lawmakers who write insurance legislation resulted in pro-industry legislation.

But insurance interests did give generously.

Between 2000 and 2005, insurance companies contributed more than $414,095 to the campaigns of the 18 committee members who oversee insurance laws, according to an Express-News analysis. In 2002, the year leading up to Senate Bill 14's passage, the total figure to committee members was $108,367.

Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, D-San Antonio, who sat on the committee and has received $45,528 from insurance interests over the past five years, acknowledged that the money spent by special interests "is getting obscene and scary."

She said she didn't know if Senate Bill 14 would have passed had the insurance industry not spent the money it did.

And though she ultimately voted for Senate Bill 14, despite reservations, she said it wasn't because of the contributions she received. She had offered a competing, unsuccessful, bill that was friendlier to homeowners. She felt SB 14 offered important compromises — and was the best Texans could hope for at the time.

"I'm going to do what's best for my constituents regardless of the contributions," Van De Putte said.

Rep. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, a longtime insurance agent himself, who was a leading proponent of the 2003 bill and who, since 2002, received $8,500 from the largest insurance interests, said: "I don't care who I get $1,000 from, if the bill's not right, I'm not going to vote for it."

The telecom bill comes calling

Such sentiments are echoed by lawmakers whether the issue is insurance rates or phone rates or prison contracts. Nearly everyone acknowledges the influence of big money in politics, and some say it troubles them. But all deny money ever has swayed their individual votes.

Last year, San Antonio's SBC (now AT&T) launched a massive campaign to overhaul the state's telecommunication laws.

It spent between $3.4 million and $7 million on contracts with 112 lobbyists. It gave $48,000 in political contributions last year to the 16 committee members who shape telecom legislation, according to an Express-News analysis of state records.

It wasn't the first big influx of SBC money into the political arena. Since 2000, the company has donated $149,000 to the coffers of committee members.

What did SBC go home with in 2005?

Senate Bill 5 died in the regular session but passed by an overwhelming vote in the second special session. Besides deregulating rates, it also enabled the telephone giant to negotiate a single statewide franchise in its quest to provide video service, rather than having to negotiate with individual localities as cable companies had been forced to do.

Consumer groups deplored Senate Bill 5.

"Consumers will have fewer choices and they will pay higher prices," said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer advocate for Texas Public Interest Research Group.

He said a campaign that cost SBC millions could now yield it "billions."

"Money talks and the phone companies know that," Mierzwinski said.

AT&T Texas President Jim Epperson said that his company does spend a considerable amount of money to lobby, but added that no amount of lobbying will persuade legislators to pass laws that don't serve their constituents. The company's goal, he added, is to educate lawmakers so that they explain the complex issues surrounding its industry.

"I wouldn't sell lawmakers short," Epperson said. "I wouldn't say lawmakers get their agenda from the lobby."

Fraser, the Republican chair of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee who's received about $26,7000 from large telecommunications interests since 2000, dismissed suggestions that SBC money translated into favorable legislation.

"The bill would have passed as it passed if they had spent zero. All their money had zero impact. And here's the reason: Nothing moves through my committee unless I agree with it," Fraser said.

Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, sponsored SB 5 and was the top recipient of large telecom interests' largess over five years, taking in more than $33,000 in campaign contributions. King did not return calls for comment.

Sen. Van De Putte received $29,000 over five years from large telecom companies, claiming the second highest amount of the committee members. She voted in favor of the telecom bill.

She bristled at even the hint that money might have swayed, or be perceived to sway, her vote.

"If I could be bought, I wouldn't be in the Legislature. My family loses $50,000 to $60,000 each session," she said of the earnings she forfeits from not being able to work as a pharmacist.

She said Senate Bill 5 wasn't a perfect bill and she fretted that local phone rates might rise slightly. But she ultimately supported it because she believed it would create jobs and would open the market to more competition. "It's a platform for the future," she said.

Last month, AT&T announced it was raising phone rates for about a third of its customers by an average of $2 a month.

Government-lobby lines blurred

Sometimes, lobbyists can have such insider status that the line between lobbyist and government gets blurred.

Such is the case of Bill Miller, who in 1998 formed a hugely successful lobbying firm with Neal "Buddy" Jones called Hillco Partners.

Four years after its formation, while still working at Hillco, Miller was tapped by Tom Craddick, who was set to become House speaker, to join his transition team.

While lobbyists had for years enjoyed close ties to top government officials, Miller became in essence a government insider for a few months, while keeping his day job representing big money clients.

While the arrangement deeply disturbed watchdog groups, there is no evidence to suggest either party engaged in anything unlawful.

Miller says he did nothing more than serve as Craddick's spokesman, something he has done on and off since the two became friends in the mid-1990s.

Craddick spokeswoman Alexis DeLee said Miller's role was limited to media-related matters, and added that there was no conflict of interest since the two had "been friends for a very long time."

Miller maintains a cozy relationship with the House speaker. In 2004, he helped arrange a private visit with the pope for Craddick, who is a devout Catholic, and his family. Miller went along. They all paid their own way.

"That was the biggest play of any lobbyist's career that I know of," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, who heads the Texas chapter of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group.

Hillco commands top dollar from clients, who last year paid as much as $7 million for its lobbying services. That put Hillco third among all lobby firms in the value of contracts.

It has also gotten into the business of giving money, much of it coming from other people.

It established a political action committee, Hillco PAC, which has raised almost $1.4 million for candidates since 2000. Since 2002, it's given $136,000 to Gov. Perry and $110,000 to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Speaker Craddick has collected $26,000 from Hillco since 2000.

One former lobbyist complained that the rise of groups like Hillco have shut out other lobbyists, creating in effect a cartel. "It's a fixed game," he said.

McDonald, of Texans for Public Justice, sees a different problem.

"When contributions come from the Realtors' association, you know the source of the money," McDonald. "When it comes from Hillco, it really muddles the source."

Weak oversight from commission

The 35 or so employees in charge of monitoring the Texas lobby and, more generally, the state's elections system work on the 10th floor of a large granite building overlooking the Capitol.

The Texas Ethics Commission was set up by constitutional amendment in 1992 to regulate elections and to protect the public's right "to apply to their government for the redress of grievances."

The agency is in charge of collecting and maintaining campaign records; leveling fines for late filings: taking questions from the public; and investigating complaints of code violations.

In the years since its establishment, the commission has never completed a thorough audit, or subpoenaed a document and even met in person with a witness. Nor has it ever initiated an investigation, the commission acknowledged in response to an open records request.

"There's no one watching," said Fred Lewis, director of the watchdog group Campaigns for People.

The commission's executive director, David Reisman, refused to explain why the agency has not been more aggressive, saying through a spokesman that the commission did not grant formal interviews.

Watchdog groups say the problem is that the agency is beholden to lawmakers whom it — at least in theory — polices.

"You can't expect it to be efficient," said McDonald, of Texans for Public Justice. "It's a good library but we shouldn't expect it to be a cop."

Two former commissioners and a 2002 review by the Sunset Commission all concluded that the agency had been paralyzed by draconian confidentiality laws, which have not applied to other state agencies and which until at least 2002 barred employees from even discussing complaints with third parties or contacting law enforcement agencies.

Changes to the law in 2003 have apparently done little to change the agency's culture.

"They cannot go as far as they need to, there's no question about it," said Ralph Wayne, the commission's immediate past chair who stepped down last fall. He said the confidentiality statute needed to provide still more protections to staff, who, if convicted of violating the confidentiality statute, face fines of up to $14,000 and as much as a year in jail.

Cleaning up excesses

Top-earning lobbyist Rusty Kelley said he sometimes finds it painful to pick up the newspaper.

Kelley grew up in a small West Texas town and bears none of Jack Abramoff's flamboyance. He credits his success to luck, and help from others.

Kelley understands the public is turned off by the commingling of special interest money and politics.

He said he'd support strict limits on campaign donations, but adds that for the time being, "It would be naive to suggest that I could not participate in these re-election efforts."

With surprising candor, Kelley said watchdog groups have a point when they talk about a political system dominated by big money interests. Though he believes his work normally pits big business against big business, sometimes he goes up against community interests, and knows they probably won't stand a chance.

He doesn't offer any solutions except to say he may not remain in the business forever.

Longtime lobbyist Jack Gullahorn has done more than most to clean up the excesses that surround his profession.

Five years ago, he formed an advocacy group for lobbyists known as the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas.

He hopes to improve the profession's standing with the public. The only way that will happen, he said, "is if we're perceived to be acting ethically."

He's signed up about 100 individual lobbyists, including many of the top players, and several corporations.

Gullahorn educates them on the minutiae of state lobby laws. Every week or so, he includes a new Compliance Tip on his Web site,, and he holds an annual conference — last year's was sold out — on the various dos and don'ts.

And he lobbies, too. Last session, he helped push through a bill that in effect, allows lobbyists to send a holiday turkey to a lawmaker's home without having to be present when it is eaten. "We do a lot of little things like that."

A believer that disclosure generally works better than restrictions, Gullahorn isn't prepared to call for campaign limits, at least not yet.

"We can't save the world," he said. Campaign limits "are on our radar screen but they're secondary."

While the lobby scandal simmers in Washington, few people expect major ethics reform to pass in Texas.

Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, wrote last year's proposal to bar corporate and union money from being spent on mailers in the last weeks of a campaign. Although it had 89 co-sponsors in the House, the measure was defeated, an outcome largely attributed to opposition from Craddick. Craddick has said he was neutral.

Eiland said he will file the same bill next session, but he's not optimistic. And he hasn't thought about proposing limits on individual or corporate campaign donations.

"I don't know that people would go for that," he said.

Lewis, of Campaigns for People, predicted meaningful reform would probably fail because of opposition from two sectors: lobbyists and lawmakers.

Lobbyists aren't wasting any time even though the November election is still months away and the next regular legislative session doesn't start until mid-January.

Lobbyists organized a fundraiser last month for Republican Dan Patrick, who won the primary election to fill an open Houston state Senate seat. Eight people signed up to host the event at the Austin Club, where most politicians hold their fundraisers. Every sponsor was a lobbyist.

And Patrick won't even join the Legislature for another 272 days.

Staff Writer Gary Scharrer and News Researcher Julie Domel contributed to this report.

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News: